ROWLAND — Just off a country road is a sight few people ever imagined in this corner of southeastern North Carolina.
Solar panels cover a 35-acre field that once produced corn, tobacco and other crops. When the sun shines, the panels generate enough electricity for hundreds of homes.
“I initially thought this was a pipe dream,” said farmer Billy Dean Hunt, recalling discussions with a solar company about using his cornfield for a sun farm. “But I started talking to them. They convinced me they would honor what they said. So I did it.”
The scene near Rowland – about 115 miles southeast of Charlotte – is found increasingly across North Carolina. Solar farms dot the landscape from the Blue Ridge mountains to the sandy coastal plain – the result of an emerging renewable energy industry.
In many cases, solar farms are replacing cropland that doesn’t generate enough income from traditional farming. Other times, solar farms are being placed on vacant industrial sites or land that hasn’t grown crops in years.
Unlike many other Southern states, North Carolina has encouraged the development of solar power through generous tax incentives and a state law requiring electric utilities to use some renewable energy. These policies are a key reason North Carolina often rates high in national rankings of solar-friendly states – and why solar farms are growing steadily.
“This shows we are progressive,” said Thomas Parker, mayor of Laurinburg, whose community has a solar farm similar to the ones in nearby Rowland. “Any time we can add a dollar to the tax base, we are interested. I believe in it. I think this will be more prevalent in the future.”
Since 2007, when North Carolina began requiring power companies to use renewable energy, about 100 solar farms have registered to open, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, a group that tracks the solar energy business.
Some of those may not have cranked up yet, but the association says the number of companies registering with the state gives an indication of the interest. Before the law passed five years ago, North Carolina didn’t have any solar farms, the association reports.
The increase in solar farms reflects a larger trend in North Carolina, where investor-owned utilities must provide up to 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources.
North Carolina’s renewable and energy-efficiency industry employs more than 15,000 people and has generated some $3.7 billion in gross revenue this year, the association says. Companies providing solar energy services have increased 76 percent since the renewable energy requirement passed the General Assembly five years ago, according to surveys by the Sustainable Energy Association.
Reducing coal dependence
The idea behind North Carolina’s solar effort is to diversify energy sources and stimulate the economy with a relatively new type of industry.
Solar power will never replace traditional power sources because the sun doesn’t shine all the time. But solar boosters say efforts like North Carolina’s can reduce dependence on coal and nuclear power and stabilize electric bills for customers. Coal and nuclear power plants, both of which create toxic waste, buy fuel from out of state to make energy, and fuel supplies such as coal are subject to price variability.
Solar farms are large-scale projects intended to provide power for the electrical grid, which historically has relied almost entirely on coal, nuclear, hydro and natural gas. Solar farms provide far more energy than solar panels on homes, which also feed power to the grid.
Solar farms periodically spark questions about whether they are appropriate in some communities. Some people say they are unsightly and take up too much space, while others ask whether it’s a good idea to replace productive farmland with solar farms.
Conservative lawmakers also question the wisdom of adopting government policies to encourage an industry they say would have trouble surviving on its own. Efforts are under way in North Carolina and, possibly at the federal level, to scale back incentives and requirements for renewable energy.
‘Too good to pass up’
To siblings Helen and Tom Livingston, solar farms are a great idea.
They decided last spring not to replant a 47-acre cotton field their family has owned for generations. For much of the next three decades, their family will be paid to rent the land to solar energy-power developer Strata Solar.
Details of the arrangement were not available, but Strata typically pays $500 to $600 per acre annually. That would be more than $20,000 each year for the 47-acre plot in Robeson County.
“It is almost too good to pass up,” said Helen Livingston, 71. “For us, it wasn’t just the money. It was the excitement of having a solar farm. But I think people would see that it does pay more than farming.”
Livingston said producing energy from the sun helps reduce dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, which hurt the environment when they are extracted from the earth.
“All of our family is environmentally conscious,” she said. “We were the right contact for a solar farm because we knew the importance of this.”
Hunt said his reasons for leasing to a renewable energy company were almost purely financial.
“It is guaranteed money,” said Hunt, 63, a Marine Corps veteran. “Farming is a risky business. If you can take some of the risk out and the liability, you are ahead of the ball game. If I die, my wife will have income because she couldn’t farm the land anymore.”